Jessie Mei Mei, Sharon Guest & Stuart Neal

download (2)I don’t know much about the world of adoption. I was blessed with children. I never knew the pain of barrenness.

The story of Jessie Mei Mei is an important one. It’s a story that uncovers so much tragedy on so many different levels – the tragedy of these parents who can’t conceive, the tragedy of children abandoned, often because their parents have no choice, the tragedy of a flawed system for parents who bring home children like Jessie Mei Mei.

I am in awe of Sharon Guest and Stuart Neal. Their book so clearly conveys their commitment to their children and to all the children who are so clearly under-represented. I commend them for their tenacity and their ongoing and unyielding love for Jessie Mei Mei, despite their inability to care for her full time. At the same time, there is a resonance of deep sadness that filters through this book and while I am humbled by Guest and Neal, I can’t help feeling a terrible sorrow for this child and all children who suffer her fate.

We have so much to learn about ourselves and others and I am eternally grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Jessie Mei Mei is a story that needed telling and Guest and Neal have told it well.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

760096_origDickens never ages. In spectacular fashion, his fiction is timeless and stellar. It’s been a while since I indulged in Dickensian splendour but none of its glory had faded and I delighted in every moment of the language and colour of this awesome tale.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before, – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”

Great Expectations is filled with these types of divine insights. About weakness:

“So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.”

About love:

“I’ll tell you,” said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smitter – as I did!”

And about expectations:

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good.”

It is this exploration of man’s essence that classifies Dickens as one of the great canonical writers of our world, his ability to flesh out characters, expose them and toy with the readers’ own sensibilities through his story-telling that defines him as brilliant.

I had forgotten so much about Dickens’ magic, and revisiting Great Expectations has brought some of this back to me. Not sure which Dickens I will be revelling in next, but whatever it is, I know I won’t be disappointed!

 

 

The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer

download (1)It is very hard to write about this book because it is quite simply one of the most brilliant books that I have ever read.

I have had the pleasure of reading Singer’s work before but I have never experienced the depth and complexity of a book like this.

This novel tells the story of a Jewish man called Jacob who finds himself sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres. Jacob, a devoutly religious Jew, spends years isolated on a mountain, working for pagan peasant farmers. Every day the farmer’s daughter, Wanda, climbs the mountain with food for Jacob who despite his slavery, attempts to maintain his religious observance, abstaining from meat, maintaining a calendar so he knows when Jewish festivals occur and trying to sustain himself by reciting from memory Jewish texts. Over time, Jacob finds himself falling in love with Wanda and despite his ongoing efforts to resist her, he eventually succumbs.

Wanda takes on Jacob’s Jewish conviction, immersing herself in the river as a type of ritual cleansing (called a mikveh). She covers her hair and dons the dress of religious Jewish women. Together they find a village in which to live, Wanda adopting the name Sarah and pretending to be a deaf mute so as not to arouse suspicion about her inability to speak Yiddish.

Despite all that Jacob and Wanda/Sarah have endured in their struggle to survive, they are plagued by the gossip of the village – Wanda’s pretence of deafness leads the women of the village to talk about her in her presence, to mock her and defame her, to  ridicule her and make snide comments about her, all the while thinking that she can’t understand them.

Jacob’s experiences with his wife both privately in teaching her about Judaism and in the village where they live, lead him to raise profound questions about his belief and the power of free will.

“But now at least he understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows. Man’s obligations toward God were easy to perform. Didn’t Gershon have two kitchens, one for milk, and one for meat? Men like Gershon cheated, but they ate matzoth prepared according to the strictest requirements. They slandered their fellow men, but demanded meat doubly kosher. They envied, fought, hated their fellow Jews yet still put on a second pair of phylacteries. Rather than troubling himself to induce a Jew to eat pork or kindle a fire on the Sabbath, Satan did easier and more important work, advocating those sins deeply rooted in human nature.”

There is so much more to this text. It is filled with internal dialogue, with profound questioning and deep emotions. It explores the most complex passages of man’s conviction as he struggles to maintain a balance between his own desires and how he believes the world should be. I have never read a journey like this and there are elements of this book that will stay with me forever.

Furthermore, this is a book to which I will need to return time and time again in order to ensure that I digest all its complexity and beauty, and to not miss a drop of its essence.

Isaac Bashevis Singer is a clear genius and this, his only self-translated work, defines him as one of the greatest writers ever to have lived.

To read more of Singer’s brilliance, don’t miss his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

When Life Gives You OJ, Erica S. Perl

downloadSo I read this series backward – Aces Wild first and then When Life Gives You OJ and I am thrilled to announce that it made absolutely no different at all to the way that I enjoyed the reading experience!

Erica Perl is a genius. She has crafted a most delightful story around a group of incredibly realistic and lively characters. On the surface, this book is about Zelda’s desire to have a dog – perfectly depicted in this book trailer. It’s a great story – Zelly’s quest to convince her parents that she is mature enough, responsible enough, caring enough to have a dog is bolstered by her grandfather’s legal brain.

But, what lies beneath this quirky and often ridiculous tale, is a beautiful sense of empathy and connectedness that characterises Zelly’s family and is a sort of icon to the eternal value of Jewish emphasis on family and community.

I fell in love with Zelly’s grandfather all over again in this book – Ace is cranky and brilliant and sad and ever so caring about his family, specifically Zelly. He is clearly a treasure chest of stories waiting to be told and I can easily imagine myself sitting by his side and listening for hours as he waxes on about his life and his experiences and his infinite wisdom.

“Even without his name on it, I would’ve known this was Ace’s work. The rubber band was a dead giveaway. Ace is the proud owner of the world’s largest rubber band collection. He doesn’t trust Scotch tape.

Ready for what? I thought. I sat up in bed, staring at the jug. If Ace was behind this, I was definitely not ready for it.

Ace is grandpa. His real name is Abraham Diamond, but he likes everyone to call him Ace. My name is Zelda Fried, but I like everyone to call me Zelly. Ace doesn’t call me Zelly, or even Zelda. He calls me ‘kid’, so I call him Grandpa to get him back.”

The banter between these characters is delightful and refreshing and I found myself intrigued by their honesty and the depth of their connection.

Truthfully, I think what I liked most about this book was the humour and insane quirkiness of the narrative.

“I knocked quietly on Ace’s door. No reply. The sign hanging on his door says GONE FISHING, but it’s just for decoration. I don’t think Ace has gone fishing once since we moved to Vermont and Ace moved in with us. GONE TO HENRY’S DINER or GONE TO BEN & JERRY’S or GONE TO BATTERY PARK TO A BAND-SHELL CONCERT WEARING MY LUCKY FISHING HAT? Yes, yes, and yes. But GONE FISHING, not so much.”

It’s hard not to laugh and laugh I did.

If you have young readers in the pre-teen age group or if you are simply young at heart, this is a great book for you to read. I promise it will make you smile!

Aces Wild, Erica S. Perl

41ZMzOF3saLThis is a title from PJ Our Way, the pilot program for kids aged 9-11, run by PJ Library. I was given this title at a conference and it sat on my desk for almost a year before I started reading it. I’m not quite sure why this happened… I think it was buried under some paperwork and neglected and it was only when I was doing my annual clean up that I noticed it and took the time to actually pay it attention.

There is so much to love about this book – even if you don’t read the first in the series – When Life Gives you O.J. – although, I expect that once you read Aces Wild, you’ll be hooked and will have to read the back-story!

Meet Ace – Ace, the Grandpa, and Ace, the dog. Meet Zelly, short for Zelda, the new girl in town, struggling to find her space in the world of teenage girls, to balance her Jewishness with her need to be accepted and to deal with her interesting family – specifically Grandpa Ace.

Grandpa Ace was the stand-out character for me in this book. He speaks mostly in capital letters, English interspersed with large smatterings of Yiddish.

” I USED YIDDISH TO MAKE A POINT,” he announced. “TO A DOG, ENGLISH, YIDDISH – IT’S ALL THE SAME. IT’S GIBBERISH!”

He was a judge and his advice is filled with legal terminology and endless amounts of wit. He is filled with the kind of wit that only a Grandpa can have and he made me smile.

“Forget it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“PUT YOURSELF IN HIS SHOES, KID.”

“He doesn’t have shoes. He’s a dog.”

“I GOT NEWS FOR YOU, KID. EVERYBODY HAS SHOES.” Ace stood, hitched his pants up over his belly, and led the way outside.

He is also recently widowed and he regularly makes trips to the golf-course where he feels he can commune with Grandma, AKA Bubbles.

Of course, the bulk of the obvious humour in this book comes from the fact that both Grandpa and the dog have the same name, and both appear to be equally untrainable –

“Ace-the-dog or Ace-the-grandpa?” asked my dad in a way that made it clear he was only half kidding.

and

“He’s Ace,” I said. “I’m Zelly. I’m the one who’s doing the class. It’s my dog.”

“Okay, what’s your puppy’s name?”

“Ace,” I said quietly.

“Sorry, I can’t hear you,” said Mrs Wright….

I sighed. “Ace,” I said, louder.

Mrs Wright looked confused. ” I thought you said he was Ace?” she said, pointing her pen at Ace.

“He is. They both are,” I told her. “It’s a long story,” I added.

I won’t destroy the story by revealing more as part of the beauty of this book is, in fact, the story itself. What I will say is that as far as young adult fiction goes, this book hits the mark for me. I think it will have huge appeal for a wide range of young readers and I can’t wait to try it out on my kids!

John Boyne, The Boy At The Top of the Mountain

Boy2-150x229I am a huge John Boyne fan and not because he wrote ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ which I did read and enjoy. I’m a fan because of the diversity of his writing. I love that he can write in so many different genres, that his young adult fiction is as good as his adult fiction, and I love the depths of his vast imagination.

This book was no exception.

And I’m not even sure how to write about it. I found it incredibly confronting and realistic and immense in its implications. Boyne has crafted something really masterful here that is going to take me some time to digest. Through his tale about young Pierrot, Boyne navigates his way through the complicity of German nationals, through the destruction of innocence and the enduring power of true friendships. He presents such a terrifying depiction of Hitler and his world that I found myself wondering about the extent of his research.

I read this book having in mind that I wanted my children to read it, but in hindsight I’m not sure that they are equipped to deal with the moral depths to which it plunges and I’m not sure that I am equipped to answer their questions about the choices that Pierrot makes and the repercussions of those choices.

The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall

9498875What a wonderfully unusual and different book.

Meet Golden Richards. He has 4 wives, 28 children and is in the midst of a midlife crisis. Richards’ business is failing and he himself is falling apart due to the accidental death of one of his daughters and the stillbirth of a son. He is lost in the most profound sense of the word and the place he finds comfort simply heightens the irony of his situation.

I won’t reveal too much about the plot of Udall’s book because it will destroy the pleasure that is buried in its reading. What I will say is that this is one of the most delightfully peculiar books that I have ever found myself reading. Udall has crafted a wonderful and empathic insight into a polygamist lifestyle that in any other circumstances would probably have me frowning with moral disapproval. Instead, what I experienced in this reading is a tender appreciation of the trials and tribulations of this lifestyle and while I laughed out loud in many parts, what I was left with was the white tinge of a residual sadness that exposes Udall as a truly great writer.

Leah Kaminsky, The Waiting Room

9780857986221I had the enormous pleasure of listening to Joanne Fedler interview Leah Kaminsky at the recent Sydney Jewish Writers Festival held at Waverley Library, in Sydney.

I had never heard of Kaminsky before, but I am a huge Fedler fan. And when Joanne Fedler raved about Kaminsky’s book, I knew I had to read it. Before I provide my review, although me to give you some context: I am in the middle of reading Julie Orringer’s magnificent tome, The Invisible Bridge. I am drowning in this book and will no doubt review it when I am done. But, I am reading it electronically and when it comes to the Jewish Sabbath that means that I have to put it down which is frustrating because this is the one day that I have a substantial amount of reading time. I tried the local library, but they didn’t have an available copy so when it came time to read on Friday night, I was somewhat at a loss. I have a huge pile of TBR books, on top of which is Wolf Hall and I decided that perhaps it was time to finally dive into that monster of a book. I did and was thrilled by what I read in the first 6o pages but then my brain began to hurt because of the overdose of different characters and I couldn’t follow which Thomas was which so I decided that I needed something lighter. Sitting next to me was Kaminsky’s much shorter book. I didn’t hesitate. And I read it in one sitting, gulping down the prose as though my life depended on it.

There was just so much about this book that appealed to me. It’s hard to know where to begin. Ironically, what impressed me most was the acknowledgement section where I found a long list of some of my favourite writers who Kaminsky describes as inhabiting the “global village of people who have generously supported the development of The Waiting Room in so many ways over the years.” The list includes Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Fedler, J.M.Coetzee and Liz Kemp amongst many others. I am in awe of these layers of influence and Kaminsky’s book pays tribute to the notion that it takes a village to both raise a child and raise a novel … or a memoir … or whatever genre this book inhabits.

I think what made this book so delicious for me was the fact that as I read it, I had a keen sense of Kaminsky’s own voice describing the various experiences that led to the book’s writing – her relationship with her mother, the things she remembered growing up, her own experiences of being a mother, life in Israel. This made the book very real for me. The other thing which resonated for me, particularly at this point in history, is that this book so clearly describes the very vivid trauma of life in a state of crisis which is exactly what is unfolding for Israelis as I write this. The events of the last week have disturbed me intensely and the protagonist, Dina’s, experiences gave a very personal and vivid voice to what seems to be, so often, so very far away.

This is not a book about G-d, although it does have moments where it touches on the dynamic between religious and secular Israelis. What there is though, is a wonderful and very tender collection of narrative voices, both present and past, which unfold in a kind of dance. Dina’s internal dialogue with her long dead mother struck me as quite brilliant. The tortured experience of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors is delicately explored by Kaminsky in this present/absent fashion. Dina’s own relationships with her son, her husband and most disturbingly, her unborn child, present themselves with stark reminders of how we ourselves behave in these different circumstances and the power of the baggage that each of us carries which has the potential to lead us to destroy these bonds.

The book’s title is another point of interest – The Waiting Room. The bulk of the story unfolds in a physical waiting room – Dina, the doctor’s, waiting room which later becomes these scene of a very different kind of waiting room. But the more intangible waiting room is the space that Dina’s mother inhabits; she is no longer alive, but she is clearly neither dead and buried. She occupies a kind of between space, she follows Dina around, talking to her, interjecting in her conversations, criticising her and often getting in the way. She too is in a metaphorical waiting room between life and death which perhaps has to do with the deep discussion that she and Dina need to have but can never quite master effectively. The layers of meaning in this title are fascinating when we think about the other characters in the book – the man who fixes shoes in the Shuk, some of the shoes on his shelf have been waiting there for 15 years and will probably keep waiting there as they are forgotten by their owners, but not by the shoe repairer. In addition, the shoe repairer himself is stuck in a kind of waiting room as he grapples with his own haunted memories of Auschwitz where he learned his trade and was saved. How is it ever possible for these people to graduate from their various waiting rooms and to move forward into the world? It was this that struck me as so disturbing.

What will stay with me from this novel is a sense of the intensity with which some people live, and the way that for others, the past is inescapable. Both of these ideas seemed to be dominant forces in this text.

Kaminsky is definitely a writer to watch and if you are looking for an interesting, yet disturbing read, then this book is for you!

  • as an aside. My mother didn’t LOVE this book in the way that I seem to have loved it. She said it was “huh” which I think translates to something like “yeah, I read it and it was enjoyable but nothing special’ and I’ve been trying to work out what she missed (or what I missed) and I think that the one thing I had that she didn’t have was Leah Kaminsky talking about this book, being interviewed about the process of writing this book and the challenges she faced and how she dealt with those challenges. I really believe that this experience made my reading experience a really intense and real one and so I thank Michael Misrachi and Sharon Berger who organised the Jewish Writers Festival and allowed me to prowl around and take it all in! Thank you all!!

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

download (1)Confession: Until I read this book, I had never read a Toni Morrison book before.  I’m not quite sure why. Sure, I know all about Beloved and I feel as though I know Morrison – I certainly felt as thought I had a intimate taste of her writing as I read this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I thought Morrison would feel like… if that makes sense.

When I think Morrison, I think Maya Angelou but somehow without the gravely tone of her voice and the echo of her depths. I realise that this is a very sensory response to a piece of writing but I don’t see that there is any other way to response to such a work. I agree with Kara Walker who says, in the NY Times review: “Toni Morrison has always written for the ear, with a loving attention to the textures and sounds of words.”

I don’t think I can do a review of this book justice. Not sure it’s worth trying since The Guardian has done such a superb job! What I will say is that the premise of this book quite distubed me. I expected the colour issue and I expected a feminist angle and I wasn’t disappointed on either count. What I found confronting was the story itself – the way that the protagonist, Bride, physically regresses in response to the burden of a lie she told as a child. In her own mind, her body reverts back to her childhood self. It was this that disturbed me, perhaps because it was most unexpected.

I wasn’t bowled over by this book. I loved the majesty of Morrison’s prose – there’s no doubt that she has a symphony hidden in her pen, or her keyboard or quill. She is clearly a master of language and storytelling. I was captivated by the story and by Bride’s boyfriend, Booker – I found him fascinating. I think where I was left somewhat empty was in Bride herself. There was something in her voice that didn’t entirely resonate with me, something I can’t quite put my finger on… Perhaps it is just in comparison to the grandeur of the prose that I have been left with such a high expectations of perfection from this author.

As The Atlantic so succintly puts it: “Rather than craft big novels, Morrison has distilled her fictions with atomic elements.”

This novel was certainly worth the read and Morrison is truly one of the greats. Equally fascinating, are the various opinions of the different reviews which all provide such insight into this intriguing little book.

Pretty Girls, Karin Slaughter

downloadLast week I read a Lee Child book. I was really disappointed. It did nothing for me and I found myself losing concentration. It could have been me … it could’ve been the book. I can’t say for sure. I just know that it didn’t grab me.

So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a new Karin Slaughter at the Library and literally drowned in the gripping furor of this unbelievable book. Slaughter had me from the first page. I couldn’t get enough of this book, of the complex relationship between characters, the psychosis and then the varied and unexpected twists as the narrative progressed.

If you are after a thoroughly gripping thriller, then this is one that won’t disappoint!!